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Originally published June 10, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified June 11, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Three decades later, former football star returns to Husky Stadium for diploma

Former Husky Al Burleson is best known for a long interception return, but he's completed a much longer journey by receiving his University of Washington degree.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As a University of Washington football player, Al Burleson is best known for a 93-yard interception return in the final minutes against rival Washington State in the 1975 Apple Cup. The play sparked a miracle comeback to beat the Cougars and remains the longest interception return in school history.

Burleson completes another remarkable return this weekend, one he hopes will leave just as lasting a memory.

Almost 39 years after first enrolling at UW, Burleson finally received his undergraduate degree.

"You don't know how happy I am to do this," said Burleson, 56, this week. "I'm kind of like glowing inside."

Burleson seemed to have it all after finishing his UW football career in 1975 — a seven-year pro career, a good job and an amazing family. He and his high-school sweetheart, Valerie, will celebrate their 35th anniversary later this month.

Together, they raised what some call the first family of Seattle sports. All four sons played major-college football or basketball, with two going pro. Nate was a receiver for the Seahawks from 2006 to 2009 and now is with the Detroit Lions. Lyndale and Kevin played college basketball, with Kevin playing in the NBA. Al Jr. followed in his father's footsteps as a defensive back at Washington, lettering in 1997.

But something was missing for Al Sr. Through all those years, the uncompleted business at UW nagged at the elder Burleson.

"I always wanted to finish up just for myself," he said. "To finish some of the goals that I always wanted to accomplish."

When attending UW functions, he'd often receive friendly reminders from longtime academic adviser Gertrude Peoples. Burleson calls Peoples "a second mother" and credits her with easing his transition to Seattle when he arrived at Washington from the San Francisco Bay Area.

"She'd always ask me. 'When are you coming back to school?' " Burleson says.

He'd left a few credits short to pursue pro football. He was the final cut of the NFL's Los Angeles Rams in 1976 before playing six years in the Canadian Football League and another year in the defunct USFL.

His attention turned from playing football to raising a family after his retirement.

But with his boys grown, he knew what he had to do.

"I'm going to go back," he vowed to his wife.

Burleson met with UW advisers before the 2009 winter quarter to map out a game plan.

He'd been a business-education major in his earlier years but switched to political science, which allowed him to explore a newfound interest in world affairs.

With UW athletic adviser Rob Post, he devised an outline, taking one class each for six quarters. He fit it around his work schedule as a manager at Unified Grocers usually either before work or at lunchtime. He was able to take some classes at local community colleges, which helped.

"He had great persistence and dedication to hammer through this after such a long time," Post said.

Burleson isn't the first former UW football player to finish after a long absence. Augie Rios, a lineman from 1967 to 1969, did it last year. Post said older players who return are more appreciative of their education and tend to be more focused. Burleson agreed, saying he was eager to participate in every class "something I'm not sure I did when I was younger."

Still, there were challenges.

"There's the fear of getting back in the classroom and being the unusual, older guy there," Post said.

Burleson admitted it was tough walking into a classroom of students almost 40 years younger. He also had to get used to a room full of people tapping away on laptops instead of scribbling notes with pencils and paper.

"The whole scene is different," he said. "But you just have to adjust."

Burleson missed only two quarters, one after the death of his mother, Kinzy Mae Burleson, in May 2009 at age 82.

Al regrets her not being able to see him receive his diploma Saturday.

"I wish my mom was there," he said. "But I know she is there in my heart."

The rest of his family, including all four boys, will be at the UW commencement ceremony at Husky Stadium on Saturday, the scene of Al Sr.'s other great return in 1975.

Sports have bonded the Burlesons, who have a yearly father-and-son bench-press contest that Al Sr. often still wins. The Burleson boys cite Dad's competitiveness as a reason he returned to school.

Kevin and Lyndale got degrees from the University of Minnesota and University of Nevada, but Al Jr. and Nate are each 15 credits short.

"He's a humble guy, but when he gets his degree, he's probably going to put it right on the front door of the house," Al Jr. said. "I'm not going to hear the end of it now until I get mine."

Nate Burleson, who left school a year early to go to the NFL, wasn't sure he needed a degree after making millions in the NFL. His father's example has made him reconsider. He now plans to someday go back to Nevada and get it done.

"Seeing him embracing the fact that he had to become a student and a father and a provider at a time when most people just want to relax, I was blown away," Nate said.

Al Sr. says he's always been proud of attending the University of Washington.

"Now I can also say that I am an alum," he said.

Yet there's something more that will make that walk across the stage Saturday at the scene of his prime so special for Al Burleson Sr.

"This completes the legacy I wanted to leave for my sons and friends when they talk about me," he said.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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